Building the Kingdom of God (with everyone’s help)

The Worship of Mammon by Evelyn de Morgan, 1909

A sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 17, 2010. The lectionary readings are Amos 8:4-7, Psalm 113, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, and Luke 16:1-13.

If you’re downtown and go by the intersection of 10th Street and G Street, in the same block as the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library, you’ll see a new building going up. This new building is being built where in 1868, the First Congregational United Church of Christ began meeting. First Congregational UCC was founded in 1865 by abolitionists as the first racially integrated church in Washington, DC. In 1953, the building was condemned, torn down, and a new building built on the same spot. By 2004, this third building was showing its age and needed some extremely costly repairs. And then a developer knocked on the door.

I imagine that developer must have seemed a little like the devil who approached Jesus in the Gospels and promised Jesus all sorts of superpowers, capping the promise off with “all of this can be yours… all these things, I will give you…” After a couple of years of praying and bargaining, the church reached an agreement with the developer to sell its air rights for $17.4 million. The new building, now going up, will include a new space for the church on the ground floor, meeting spaces and program spaces, with condominiums overhead. The maintains ownership of the land but benefits from the sale of the air rights and profit-sharing from the sale of the condominiums. The church plans to devote a portion of the proceeds to further its social action mission including the Dinner Program for Homeless Women, local and international advocacy for peace and justice and housing for very low income people off site.

I imagine it was a difficult decision for the church to make a deal with the developer, even though, with hindsight, the deal looks pretty sweet. I don’t know what scripture might have guided the discussions, but the readings we have heard today would have given them a lot to think about.

The prophet Amos thunders forth from our first reading. “Hear this,” he says, “you that trample on the needy. You who cheat the poor and push around the defenseless. [God] will turn your feasts into mourning, and … your songs into lamentation.” The point to Amos’s preaching is not to criticize formal or elaborate worship. The point is that with all the resources at Israel’s disposal, with all the wealth in their temple, in their homes and in their hands, they are (at the end of the day) showing themselves to be a stingy, selfish people.

Amos points out the hypocrisy in Israel’s worship, in the ordering of their lives, in their culture. They have forgotten when they were poor. They have forgotten when they were aliens. They have forgotten when they were not the majority. But God never forgets. And God will bring justice. God holds God’s people accountable.

If the Old Testament reading reminds us about some of WHAT we should be doing, the Gospel suggests that our doing—our living out the Gospel, our working with God to bring about his kingdom, may involves some strange relationships. Our being faithful to God may sometimes mean our getting smart, shrewd and resourceful in the here-and-now.

In today’s Gospel, we hear about a rich man who has a dishonest manager. This manager is not only underperforming, but seems to be either skimming off the top or manipulating the funds in some other way. The accounts do not add up, and the rich man gives the manager notice. But the manager sees some of this coming. He knows his days are numbered, so he makes plans, and his plans involve building up “credit” with others. Before he leaves, the manager goes around to all of those who owe the rich man. He cuts his losses. He lowers each person’s total, collects what he can and tries to prepare for the future. He is a pragmatist and his quick thinking seems to get him back into the favor of his boss.
In this parable, Jesus is simply telling a story. He does not mean for his disciples or us to identify specifically with one character or another. He is not encouraging us to be cheats. He is not suggesting that the kingdom of God is achieved by dishonesty or duplicity. But there is the suggestion that the kingdom of God benefits from a shrewd mind and from a willingness to make use of all the resources at one’s disposal. The Christian faith is not helped by feeble-mindedness or by a kind of pious naïveté. Rather, in Jesus’ words, the “children of light” can learn a few things from the “children of this age.” That is to say that those who seek to follow Jesus can learn even from, and perhaps especially from some who are secular and even nonreligious. This idea is echoed in Matthew when Jesus sends out his disciples to be “as sheep in the midst of wolves, to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

Today’s readings suggest that we have a role to play in the ongoing life of God and the unfolding of God’s kingdom. It matters what we do with what we have, whether we have just a tiny bit or whether we have a whole lot. Whatever we have can be used for God’s good will. What we have in terms of our energy, our mind, our faith, our compassion, our talent, our money— all of this has a role to play in God’s unfolding kingdom.

Using what we have, for God, is the central message of today’s scripture. It is what Jesus is saying to his disciples—that even though the manager in the story is less-than-honest, perhaps he’s even a little shady and maybe even a little underhanded, the manager does everything he can to prepare for the future—he uses all of his resources in the most creative way he can, and it’s that creativity and resourcefulness that Jesus is lifts up for us.

Today in the undercroft we have various ministries represented. They look for volunteers. They look for new ideas. They look for new energy. As you look around you may not see the thing you are interested in doing, or it may be that God is whispering to you an idea that no one else has yet heard. Then, especially, I invite you to speak with someone about a way to use what you have in this little corner of God’s kingdom.

It may not be our calling to sell air rights and build a skyscraper. But who knows what God might call us to do?

Our Collect of the Day prays that even as we are surrounded by earthly things, that we would not be anxious about them, but hold on to what lasts, what endures, what helps others, and what furthers the community and love of our Lord Jesus Christ. May we learn to use all that we have and all that we are for God.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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